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Pitt Pantry addresses rising food insecurity

As food insecurity becomes a rising concern on college campuses, more colleges — including the University of Pittsburgh — are opening food pantries to feed hungry students tight on cash

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After finishing a shift at Market Central, Alexandria Dsouza usually swings by the Pitt Pantry to pick up her groceries for the week.

“I come here primarily for toiletries, like toothpaste and toilet paper, and breakfast foods like bagels and cereal,” Dsouza said, leaning comfortably against the pantry door frame, a bag of bagels firmly cradled in the crook of her elbow. “And beans. Beans are great.”

Dsouza, an international student from India, lives off-campus in the Shadyside neighborhood. Since getting to the University of Pittsburgh in August 2016, she’s been visiting the pantry to save her wages for rent, tuition and additional costs that inevitably crop up.

“Every little bit helps… Most of the money I make working at Market Central goes toward my rent and other expenses,” Dsouza said. “Any chance to save cash makes a difference to me because I’ve taken on a lot since arriving here.”

The Office of PittServes — which connects students with service opportunities — facilitates the non-profit, volunteer-run Pitt Pantry. The Pantry takes donations from individuals, food drives and food recovered from businesses including Starbucks and Einstein Bros. Bagels. It also receives cheap and healthy recipes from the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

Since the pantry opened nearly two years ago, its monthly visitors have more than doubled. Students who qualify as independent and make less than a certain amount of money yearly can stop by the Pitt Pantry twice per month.

“We’ve had tremendous support from the local community,” Smith said. “Sometimes we’ll get food from drives we didn’t even know were held.”

Tucked away in a corner room of the Bellefield Presbyterian Church’s basement, the pantry is not a permanent structure and is only open Wednesdays from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., Thursdays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. and Fridays by appointment. Colorful paper decorations hang from the ceiling and brush shoppers’ heads as they follow their pantry guide — a student volunteer — to the beat of pop music playing in the background.

Photo: Kyleen Considine. The Pitt Pantry accepts donations from local food vendors, individuals and through relationships with other non-profits in the area. Since the pantry opened nearly two years ago, its monthly visitors have more than doubled. - Students who qualify as independent and make less than a certain amount of money yearly can stop by the Pitt Pantry twice per month.

Photo: Kyleen Considine. 

Healthy, easy recipe ideas dangle over collapsible shelves housing perishable items. Next to a refrigerator stocked with yogurt and salads is a folding wall, decorated with tacked-on coupons.

Junior Madoc Smith — one of three or four student volunteer workers on duty at all times — escorts individual shopper through the pantry during a shift in February, asking about their allergies and diet and if they own a can opener or microwave. If needed, the mathematical biology, computer science and urban studies major directs them to the vegetarian or gluten-free sections.

“The people who come in here, they’re just kids trying to eat,” Smith said. “We try to make it as welcoming an experience as possible.”

As Smith guides a shopper through the pantry, he tells them how much food they’re allowed to take. Pantry customers are allowed to make two visits a month and must fall under the United States Department of Agriculture’s federal income eligibility guidelines. The income limit is $17,820 for an independent individual, $24,030 for a couple and $36,450 for a family of four. The amount of food a customer is permitted to take depends on how many people they’re shopping for. For instance, a person shopping for just themselves may take one can of soup, but a person shopping for three people may take two.

“We try to supply students with aid beyond just giving them food,” Smith said. “We’ll also hold home winterizing workshops and do stuff like send them information about stores holding sales.”

At a university that costs upwards of $17,000 a year, or more than $28,000 for out of state residents, a food pantry seems like an ironic necessity. But it might be the high — and still rising — cost of college, along with all the added costs of living, that make it so necessary.

Photo: Kyleen Considine. Rosemary Holtz, a sophemore nutrition and dietetics major, sorts coupons at the Pitt food pantry.

Photo: Kyleen Considine. Rosemary Holtz, a sophomore nutrition and dietetics major, sorts coupons at the Pitt food pantry.

The Pitt Pantry’s customers are only a handful of the thousands of college students who visit campus food pantries across the U.S., a number that has ballooned in recent years. The College and University Food Alliance welcomed its 400th food pantry in December 2016, a large increase from its original 13 college pantries in March 2012.

“Food insecurity has increasingly become an issue on college and university campuses and can pose a significant barrier to student success,” CUFBA’s website reads. “Addressing it serves both a human service and educational need.”

By food insecurity, CUFBA means lacking access to adequate food due to a shortage of money or other resources. Hunger is more common among college students than the U.S. population as a whole, according to the October 2016 report Hunger on Campus.

The report surveyed more than 3,000 students at a mix of 34 community and four-year colleges, and found that 48 percent of recipients experienced food insecurity in the past month, having to skip meals or decrease meal sizes because they lacked funds.

Of the food insecure students in the study, 32 percent said that hunger problems had an impact on their education — 53 percent of those respondents reported missing a class, and 25 percent reported dropping a class due to food insecurity.

Erika Ninos, the sustainability program coordinator for PittServes, said alumni feedback revealed that there were times in many Pitt students’ collegiate careers when they were unable to purchase nutritious food or were forced to cut back on meals to save costs. This information led to the pantry’s creation.

“After benchmarking other institutions and researching what is available locally for students, a cohort of students came together with the Office of PittServes to create the Pitt Pantry,” Ninos said.

During its first month, 23 people visited the Pitt Pantry. Now nearly two years old, the pantry serves between 50 to 100 members of Pitt’s faculty, staff and student body a month.

Pitt is not the only Pittsburgh-area college to start a food pantry. The Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) started its own in April 2015.

The CCAC’s pantry, called the Campus Cupboard, follows the same federal income guidelines as the Pitt Pantry. It is open two hours a day, four days a week, and customers are allowed to visit once per month. Kelli Maxwell, dean of student development of CCAC’s south campus, said that its visitors come from all demographics and socioeconomic statuses.

“We’ve got a lot of young people, but we also have older people going back to school to get a degree,” Maxwell said. “We also have students that are parents or full-time workers.”

Neither lack of employment, a lack of access to college meal plans or financial aid have been found to be contributing factors to food insecurity among students. The Hunger on Campus report found that of the food insecure students surveyed, 56 percent reported having a paying job, with 38 percent of them working 20 hours or more per week.

Photo: Kyleen Considine.

Photo: Kyleen Considine.

Among the respondents from four-year colleges, 43 percent of meal plan enrollees still experienced food insecurity, and three in four food insecure students received some form of financial aid. More than half — 52 percent — received Pell Grants, and 37 percent took out student loans during the current academic year.

More students are going hungry simply because students are spending more money to cover the rising cost of tuition. According to a 2015 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, tuition at public four-year colleges has gone up $2,068 on average since the 2007-08 academic year. Simultaneously, state spending on higher education nationwide is down an average of $1,805 per student since the Great Recession.

Furthermore, more and more people are feeling pressured to attend college even if it’s unaffordable. A 2013 study by Georgetown University predicts that almost two-thirds of open jobs on the American market will require higher education beyond high school by 2020.

The burden of covering college expenses often falls solely on students, with family members less capable than before the recession to help cover costs. According to College Board’s 2016 report, the average total cost of tuition, fee and room and board rose 10 percent from 2010 to 2015 at public colleges while median family income rose just 7 percent over the same time period.

An undergraduate Pitt student and visitor to the Pitt Pantry who wished to remain anonymous said she attends the pantry because she can’t risk asking relatives for spare funds, and what money she makes must be put towards other expenses.

“I don’t want to bother [my mom] for cash for food while she’s got her own expenses to cover,” the student said. “All the cash I make over the summer I use to pay my rent.”

The student said she doesn’t think people realize just how many people benefit from the Pitt Pantry’s presence on campus and how much its services mean to many students.

“It’s definitely the best program Pitt has to offer — after all, everyone needs to eat dinner,” the student said.

The Pitt News